BULLY IN THE PULPIT

They're called change agents. They swoop in to transform stodgy institutions, using their power of persuasion--or brute force--to implement their bold agenda. It's a risky tack, one that guarantees large numbers of people will hate the boss's guts. If successful, change agents are celebrated. But at every step of the way, opponents lie in wait, ready to pounce at the slightest misstep. They can sense moments of vulnerability. Can this leader be toppled?

This storyline may feel like a tired cliche in corporate America, where CEO ousters have become as common as love triangles in soap operas. But last week this narrative unfolded with high drama in a place where power struggles usually occur more discreetly: the ivory tower. A month after giving an ill-advised talk on why women aren't more successful in science and engineering, Harvard President Larry Summers faced his first faculty meeting. For 90 minutes professors berated the former Treasury secretary, their denunciations interrupted by applause. The criticisms went well beyond his women-and-math speech, charging him with an imperious, abrasive leadership style unsuitable for the halls of academia. "Colleagues who dare to disagree with you [are] bullied into silence," scolded sociology chair Mary Waters, who described a university "held hostage to fear." If the meeting had been held just one day earlier, it might be remembered as Harvard's Valentine's Day Massacre.

Summers's plight isn't exactly the same as an embattled CEO's, since universities and corporations operate so differently. Chief executives have an undisputed, singular goal (maximize the stock price), can fire subordinates and answer solely to their boards. A university president has a far more complex set of constituents: students, tuition-paying parents, alumni, donors, faculty, nonacademic staff, campus neighbors and trustees. With no stock price to serve as the defining performance metric, a president's leadership is harder to measure. Are applications rising? Are donations growing? Are faculty-recruiting efforts enhancing the school's ability to produce finished goods, in this case graduates and scholarship? For many presidents, restive tenured faculty members are the biggest occupational hazard. "That's why being a college president is so difficult--you can't order anybody to do anything," says Robert Reich, the former Harvard professor and Labor secretary. For their toil, college presidents don't even get stock options, though Summers's salary has topped $500,000.

Despite those contrasts, Summers's travails would draw sympathy from private-sector bosses, many of whom have suffered through similar fights. Last week's faculty gathering stirred memories of the town-hall meeting held two years ago by The New York Times in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. There the staff unleashed a long list of grievances against executive editor Howell Raines, who was asked to resign three weeks later. The Blair episode was merely the catalyst for the staff to air broader complaints about Raines's management style; likewise Summers's problems have less to do with his most recent gaffe than with how he's alienated the faculty. He's insulted colleagues, threatened to move some faculties to a satellite campus, and worked to shift money and power toward the president's office. "His comments [on] women and science were really the last straw for a large number of faculty," says anthropology professor James Watson. Another similarity: as in the Raines episode, the Internet is serving to amplify the crisis, as Summers's friends and foes use e-mail to whip up support and observers stay tuned on the Web. If the controversy continues, the Web site of Harvard's student newspaper, the Crimson, may soon be getting as many hits as Google.

Summers's predicament also speaks to a shifting appetite for just how high a public profile leaders should be taking. Summers, who won the presidency over lesser-known academics (including at least one Harvard insider), was chosen in part because he was judged best able to use the bully pulpit the job affords. In corporate America, however, tides seem to be shifting in the opposite direction. In business books like "Good to Great" and "Searching for a Corporate Savior," there's growing praise for boards that promote uncelebrated inside managers into top jobs, instead of hiring swashbuckling celebrity CEOs. Carly Fiorina's recent ouster at HP stemmed largely from her botched merger with Compaq, but she didn't help herself by spending too much time speechifying at economics conferences and too little running the business. Lately both boards and employees have taken on even the most celebrated CEOs. Example: Michael Eisner, who's being forced to retire from Disney in 2006. Some worry the muscle-flexing could go too far. "There's a very Queen of Hearts, off-with-their-heads moment going on in boardrooms right now," says share-holder activist Nell Minow. "Boards think if they fire the CEO, they're not Enron."

Summers's odds of emerging with his neck intact seemed to be improving late last week. On Thursday he gave in to pressure to release a transcript of the remarks that sparked the firestorm. The text became a Rorschach test: Summers's detractors found much to dislike, not just in his remarks about women's math skills, but also in an introductory aside in which he pointed to the underrepresentation of Catholics in investment banking and Jews in farming. But other readers came away impressed by the nuance in his provocative statements, which he repeatedly qualified as his "best guess" and prefaced with "I may be wrong." In a statement accompanying the release, he backtracked even further, saying his remarks "substantially understated" the role of social factors and discrimination in explaining why fewer women score at the top rungs on math exams, and that his hypothesis of a genetic explanation "went beyond what research has established."

While Harvard's faculty of Arts and Sciences remains in an uproar--it will meet this week amid talk of mounting a "no confidence" vote--the controversy may be more localized than the headlines suggest. The situation is generating only limited buzz at the university's various graduate schools. While one feminist group will protest at Tuesday's meeting, most undergrads remain indifferent or even supportive of their president. A course on globalization Summers coteaches is the second most popular class on campus. On Friday some undergrads launched a support group called Students for Larry. Many alumni remain loyal, too. The buyout investor Thomas H. Lee hosted a dinner for 50 Harvard alumni in New York last week, and Lee says the Summers controversy wasn't even discussed. "Harvard is going along very well in the eyes of alumni who are potential donors," says Lee, who's given more than $20 million to the school. "I believe Larry's going to weather the storm."

Ultimately that decision will fall to the Corporation, the seven-member body charged with hiring--and, theoretically, firing--the president. For now its members appear solidly behind him. "We know [Summers] as someone very much determined to learn from experience," the Corporation's senior member wrote in a statement last week. Summers will show that learning, presumably, by displaying a softer, less combative style. "He's in a period of deeper personal reflection of how did he get here and what does he need to do to correct it," says one Summers confidante. If those corrections don't eventually placate his faculty, who can make his life unpleasant even if they can't dethrone him, all bets may be off; you don't need to be an economist to realize that a former Treasury secretary has greater employment options than, say, a Renaissance literature scholar. But even those who prefer literature to university politics have good reason to keep an eye on events in Cambridge, Mass. Heroic or not, at times Larry Summers's tragic flaws seem almost Shakespearean. And this drama still has a few acts to go.